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Barbara O. Jones, Actress Who Brought Black Cinema to Life, Dies at 82


Barbara O. Jones, an actress whose captivating work in films like “Bush Mama” and “Daughters of the Dust” helped define the cerebral, experimental and highly influential Black cinema movement that emerged in Los Angeles in the 1970s, died on April 8 at her home in Dayton, Ohio. She was 82.

Her brother Marlon Minor confirmed the death but said the cause had not been determined.

Starting in the early 1970s just a few miles from Hollywood, a generation of students at the University of California, Los Angeles, began making films that pushed hard against many of the tropes of commercial moviemaking.

Budding filmmakers like Charles Burnett, Julie Dash and Haile Gerima eschewed polished scripts and linear narratives in search of an authentic Black cinematic language. They relied on actors like Mrs. Jones, drawn from far outside the mainstream, to bring their work to life.

Mrs. Jones was in some ways the typical Los Angeles transplant, having moved from the Midwest in search of a film career. She took acting classes, but, rather than gravitating toward Hollywood, she fell in with the politically charged, aesthetically adventurous scene around the U.C.L.A. film school, a movement that the film scholar Clyde Taylor called the L.A. Rebellion.

She appeared in several short student films, including Mr. Gerima’s “Child of Resistance” (1973), in which she played an imprisoned activist loosely based on Angela Davis, and Ms. Dash’s “Diary of an African Nun” (1977), adapted from a short story by Alice Walker.

Her first leading role in a feature film was in Mr. Gerima’s “Bush Mama” (1979). The movie’s story followed the daily life of Dorothy, played by Mrs. Jones — a hangdog, working-class Black woman facing the sort of frustrations that regularly confronted Black Americans but were rarely seen on the big screen in that era.

A welfare case officer tells her to get an abortion. Her boyfriend, T.C., is arrested on false charges. The police shoot a mentally unwell man in front of her. Along the way, Dorothy becomes increasingly radicalized, until she returns home to find a white police officer assaulting her daughter. She erupts in rage, beating him to death.

The film is purposely disjointed, jumping around chronologically, but it is held together by Mrs. Jones’s simmering performance. Film Comment magazine wrote that “the effect is sometimes startling, frequently banal, but always forceful.”

For most of the film, Dorothy wears a straight wig and conservative clothes, but the film ends with her natural curls revealed as she stands in front of a poster showing a Black woman holding a child and a machine gun.

“The wig is off my head, T.C.,” she tells the camera. “The wig is off my head.”

Mrs. Jones worked in television and had smaller roles in other 1970s films, often appearing under the screen names Barbarao, Barbara-O and Barbara O. Her credits included “Black Chariot” (1971) and the 1977 science fiction horror movie “Demon Seed,” starring Julie Christie.

She had a larger part in the 1979 mini-series “Freedom Road,” in which she played the wife of a formerly enslaved man, played by Muhammad Ali, who becomes a U.S. senator.

Mrs. Jones’s last major credit was perhaps her most accomplished and most significant. In Ms. Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” (1991), she played Yellow Mary, a former prostitute who grew up among the Gullah people of the Southeast coast, and who returns home to a family struggling with the push and pull of community and the modern world. The film went on to influence the director Ava DuVernay and the makers of “Lemonade,” the 2016 Beyoncé musical film that accompanied her album of the same name.

“She was a chameleon,” Ms. Dash said in a phone interview. “She could take on any role.”

Barbara Olivia Minor was born on Dec. 6, 1941, in Asheville, N.C. Her father, Samuel, was an auto mechanic, and her mother, Alberta (Robinson) Minor, taught high school business classes.

She received a bachelor’s degree in speech and theater from Wright State University in Dayton and a master’s degree from Antioch University.

She worked as a disc jockey for WDAO, Dayton’s first Black-owned radio

She worked as a radio personality in Dayton and attended Antioch College, but did not graduate. She married William Jones in 1959. They divorced in 1968, shortly before she moved to Los Angeles. She married Robert Price in 1971.

Along with her brother Marlon, Mrs. Jones’s survivors include her children, Makini Jones, Mshinda Jones and Dhati Price; five grandchildren; one great-grandson; and another brother, Raymond.

Following her decades in film, Ms. Jones focused her efforts on promoting spirituality and wellness. She created and conducted what she called sistership healing rituals for groups around the country. She also undertook long vows of silence.

It was, she said, “my favorite spiritual practice, a beautiful way to hear life.”



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